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High-Speed Pursuits Have Their Limits

Police: The risk to others must be weighed against the need to catch a suspect or offender.

April 07, 1996|GEOFFREY P. ALPERT | Geoffrey P. Alpert is a professor of criminology in the College of Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina

Police pursuit driving has become a topic of public interest in the past few weeks in Southern California. The basic issues center on two primary and often conflicting law enforcement goals: to apprehend a suspect and to protect the public. Each of these concerns must be carefully considered and weighed before a police pursuit is initiated or terminated. In a sense, it is a matter of assessing the costs, the benefits and the risk.

If the apprehension of a suspect, including a traffic violator, were the sole concern of the police, then aggressive pursuit would be justified, since police chases often end in arrests. However, it is also possible, in some cases likely, that the officer, the suspect or an innocent bystander will be injured. If public safety were the primary concern, there would be no pursuit involving high speeds and dangerous driving. There also probably would be no offenders escaping apprehension.

Forcing police to choose only one of the goals is not a responsible solution to the dilemma of pursuit driving. Indeed, it is exactly this dilemma that we all must address: When is it reasonable to chase a suspect and when is it reasonable to allow a suspect to escape?

Common sense supported by empirical research identifies the critical factors that should govern the decision to begin, continue and terminate a police pursuit. The first and most important is the nature of the offense, which determines the need to immediately apprehend a suspect. Obviously, it is more important to apprehend a rapist, murderer or other violent felon than it is to apprehend a thief or a traffic offender. The consequences of allowing a violent felon to escape can be catastrophic compared to the consequences of allowing a property-crime suspect to escape.

It is important to emphasize that the justification for a pursuit must be the known violation. Just because a driver refuses to stop for a police officer's signal does not automatically mean that this person has something serious to hide. It is critical to impress on drivers the risks they take when they violate the law and do not stop for police officers. But, serious as this offense is, it does not justify an unbridled response from police officers.

Other important factors in the pursuit decision include the type of area of the chase, traffic and weather conditions, the speeds and the distance. All of these govern the level of risk the pursuit poses to the public. Personnel factors also may come into play; how reliable is the pursuit officer's judgment in the field? How susceptible is he or she to the adrenaline rush that comes with a pursuit? Just as police agencies work toward minimizing the risks of pursuits, they must identify and restrain officers who want to chase at any cost.

The critical decision to chase (or not) must be based on the balance between the law enforcement agency's need and ability to apprehend the suspect and the calculated risk to the public. For example, conducting a high-speed chase in an urban area is comparable to discharging a firearm into a crowd. A bullet may hit its intended target, or it may hit a bystander instead. A suspect in a chase may eventually be stopped and arrested, but in the process, innocent civilians may lose their lives. In this scenario, neither law enforcement nor public safety is served.

After a very short distance, a pursuit is not likely to stop with the suspect ending his flight voluntarily. This creates a serious problem for law enforcement. Except for some relatively new technology to deflate tires or electronically shut down an engine, police have no method to terminate a chase without the use of deadly force. If the suspect will not voluntarily stop the chase, the only way to remove the threat to the public is for the police to stop. This will almost certainly ensure the suspect's escape for the time being. Again, the essential question is: Which is more important, enforcement of the law or public safety?

Balancing the need to immediately apprehend an offender and the risk to the public is an integral part of the police mission, which is to protect life.

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